All Things to All People
If you’re a fan of Star Trek, which I am, then you’ll remember the famous quote from Wrath of Kahn where, a couple times, Spock says, “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and Kirk finishes with “or the one.” The first time was when Kirk was assuming command and Spock was convincing him that it was only logical for the better leader to be in charge. But at the end of the movie, when Spock is dying after saving the ship, he’s locked behind a door that can’t be opened and he and Kirk share their last words. Spock begins again, “Don’t grieve… it is logical… The needs of the many outweigh…” Kirk says, “…the needs of the few…”, and Spock finishes with “or the one.”
The dynamic between Kirk and Spock is one of the most famous in TV history. Spock was all about pure logic where Kirk was driven by his passions. In fact, in the next movie, Kirk’s passions lead him to go and find Spock again, who has come back to life (don’t ask), and when they do finally talk, Spock asks why Kirk would risk so much for him. Kirk replies with “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”
Trying to find a balance between these two is part of the challenge of living in Western society. On one hand we have to live as neighbours and citizens of the same country, so we need to agree upon some common ground – laws for example. On the other hand we also value, as our Charter of Rights and Freedoms says, “life, liberty and security”. People should be able to live freely, without oppression. And so we are always balancing the needs of the many and the needs of the one.
Now, I’m no historian, but I’ve noticed something of this switch happening in our own culture. There something pervading society these days that, though not new, is, to me, much more pronounced than it has been in the past. It’s something people are calling “Radical Individualism” and is an imbalance of what I just described. The Spock like logic of “the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one” has been overtaken by the Kirk like passion of “the needs of the one outweighing the needs of the many.”
“Radical Individualism” is when a person or society places the rights of an individual over those of the rest of society. Instead of considering what is best for the group, the highest consideration is that of the individual need – regardless of the cost to the rest. Some people see this as freedom from outside forces – from parents, government, religions, and teachers who have been oppressing them for so long. They cast off the shackles of what everyone else wants them to be and do and chart their own path, learn their own lessons, create their own truths – and everyone in the group is expected to accept whatever anyone wants to say, do, or become.
In the past, individualism has sometimes been a good thing. Ending slavery is a good example of when the needs of the individual should have outweighed the needs of the larger group. So are laws that force companies and corporations to hire and make life easier for disabled persons. Sometimes the larger society is being selfish, or is unaware of a need, and should do what is right for the sake of the smaller group or individual. Military action is often motivated by trying to defend a smaller group from a larger one. These are good things.
However, as our society has promoted more and more individual causes they are losing the ability to be able to “identify a singly system of shared values and beliefs”. When everyone says they deserve special treatment, or claims to be a victim, then who’s virtues should prevail?
This is when tolerance gets out of control. Instead of being a respect for people’s differences and an acknowledgement of the need to respect people, it becomes an excuse to allow anyone to do anything without fear of reprisal. There’s no line that an individual cannot cross. Their own “personal morality” has higher value than the shared values or even laws of the land. And then mix in our knowledge of our own sins and desire to keep that sin in the dark and we start to think that no one has any right to impose any value on anyone else. If everyone is equally special, everyone is equally corrupt, everyone needs to tolerate everything, and everyone gets to decide what is right, then our God-given right to life, liberty, and personal freedom degenerates into “anything I choose must be right”.
And that’s Radical Individualism. I am my own highest authority, only my choices matter, the world exists for me, and therefore everything I choose must be right. Or, as we read it in the book of Judges 17:6, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Just consider how this messes up so many parts of our world. Living only for yourself destroys marriages, families, friendships, churches, sports teams, armies and nations.
A Personal Brand of Christianity
As I said, this way of thinking isn’t new, and Christians, and most people throughout history, have not seen Radical Individualism as a good thing, but as dangerous. It is dangerous to think that our way is the right way, our thoughts are the best thoughts, our culture is the best culture, our thinking is the best thinking.
The point of that video we watched at the beginning was to humorously show what happens when churches start to buy into this individualistic mindset of thinking that what people need isn’t Jesus, but Western Christian Culture. I know a lot of people inside the church that believe that if we can just make people into good church people, then they will fall in love with Jesus. This was how global missions for a long time. Instead of going to Africa, Asia, and the rest of the world to spread the message of Jesus to people – they would spread western society. Instead of learning the language, they’d teach them English. Instead of using the culture’s type of architecture, they’d plop a European style church in the middle of their village. The idea was that if they could turn everyone into good Europeans, good Anglicans, good Catholics, then they’d be saved.
And we do the same, right? Instead of sharing Jesus with people, we share our church. Instead of sharing the Bible with them, we share our favourite preacher. Instead of telling people what Jesus has been doing in our lives, we give them a book to read. Instead of talking to them about what Jesus has said, we share a really good song we’ve heard. We invite kids to Sunday School or VBS and tell them Bible stories about how to be good, moral, little boys and girls, and forget about the part where we tell them about their sin and need for a Saviour, and if we do talk about Jesus we end up using words and concepts they simply don’t understand.
Now, I’m not saying that sharing sermons, books, songs and VBS’s are bad – but they are certainly a way that we can end up spreading our church culture, our own individual, personal brand of Christianity – instead of the Jesus of the Bible.
What does that say about our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit and the message of the Gospel? It says that we don’t think it’s powerful enough. We think we need to prime the pump by making people different before the Spirit will speak to them, before Jesus will meet them. They have to become little versions of us in order to be worthy or ready for the gospel.
Servant to All
Open up to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. It says,
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
This is how Christians are meant to see the world. We talked last week about the dangers of trying to be cool and self-entitlement and before that how all of our decisions have ripple effects into the lives of those around us. This is the crescendo of those lessons.
In Jesus we are “free from all”. Over and over in the New Testament we are told we are “Free”. We are no longer bound under the Law of Moses that can only condemn us. We are free from the consequences of sin. Freed from the darkness. And, since Jesus is our Lord, we are now friends with and followers of, the highest authority in the universe. His way is our only way. There is no one else we must answer to. We are “free from all”. We fear no person, organization, government, principality or power in this world because we have been made free. And that is a glorious freedom.
But along with these reminders of our freedom come a command. 1 Peter 2:16 says, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. “ Galatians 5:13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” With that great freedom comes great temptation towards Radical Individualism. We can become drunk on the idea of freedom.
Where once we were captive to human authorities telling us what to do, we now know that only God can command us – and are then tempted to remove ourselves from all human authorities. Where once we were enslaved to false religion and false doctrine, we now hear God’s voice ringing clearly – and are then tempted to push aside all religion, all books, and all teachers, believing ourselves to be perfect in wisdom. Where once we were slaves to guilt and shame, we now know the love and grace of God – and are then tempted to sin all the more because we know that God will always forgive us.
And when that thinking sets in we start to create our own theologies and doctrines, cut out and add to the scriptures as we see fit, and create our own, personal religious actions and systems – which we end up wanting to spread to the others that we see as enslaved. This is what it means to “use your freedom as a cover-up for evil”. It means that our freedom leads us to create an ungodly version of Christianity that looks more like us than Jesus, and we start demand that people follow us and our ways rather than Him and His.
But, the missionary Apostle Paul says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”
When two of His disciples came to Him asking to be the greatest men in His new Kingdom, to sit on His right and his left, Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They thought that following Jesus meant that they would be free from the oppression of the Jewish Sanhedrin, free from their Roman oppressors, and finally be rulers of nations with only Jesus above them – but they had gotten it all wrong. Jesus’ kingdom is an upside down one. He says to them, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:22, 25-28)
He says in Matthew 16:24-26, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
If you want freedom, it comes through the cross. If you want to gain everything, it comes through loss. If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, then you must be a servant of all. That is the direct opposite of Radical Individualism.
We are free from all, but instead we “make ourselves a servant to all”. And notice those words “I made”. It means to make the choice every day. Though Jesus was God in the flesh, Creator and Ruler of all things, for whom all things were made and will one day return – He made the choice to live as servant, even unto death. Which is the model for all believers.
All Things to All People
We then see some examples of what this meant in Paul’s life, which can help us understand what it means in ours.
“Paul never compromised the doctrines of Scripture, never changed God’s Word in order to make it more palatable to people in any given place. He never went against God’s law or his own conscience.” But, “in matters that did not violate any principle of God’s Word, Paul was willing to become like his audience in order to win them to Christ.” When someone needed to bend, he bent. He didn’t bend the world to himself, but he bent to the world.
A good theological word for this is “condescension”. God condescends to us so we can understand Him. He makes Himself low so we can know Him. Like when we talk baby-talk to an infant, or simplify our explanations to a child, God speaks in a way we can understand. As one of my favourite theologians, RC Sproul says, “God, in order to communicate with us lowly mortals, must speak to us in lisps.”
And so must Christians condescend or bend to the world around us. It’s a way we serve them. We don’t force them to come to us, but we go to them. We don’t force our language on them, we learn theirs. We don’t force our lifestyles on them, we participate in theirs. Never compromising God’s Word or our conscience, but always serving them in a way they can understand.
To the Jews he became like a Jew. What does that mean? In other words, though he was free from the Law of Moses and all the many traditions and rules they had come up with since, when he was with them he conformed himself to their pattern of life. He didn’t stand on street corners and tell everyone to stop their traditions, to give up the temple, to stop sacrificing, to change their clothes, and all the rest, but instead, he chose to participate in the traditions, went to temple, and wore the clothes so that they would be able to hear him.
People are weak and very distractible. If you look weird to them, it’s going to take a lot more time to get them to listen – if they ever will. So we suck it up and serve those around us by engaging with them in a way they can understand. For love’s sake we learn their language, their customs, and their way of life. We eat what they eat, dress like they dress, learn what they like – their sports, shows and businesses – and become conversant in it to use as a bridge of friendship and then the gospel. Again, never compromising God’s Word or your conscience.
You can’t say, “I watch Game of Thrones because everyone at work does and I want to be a good missionary.” That show is pornography and is sin to watch. Maybe it means you expand your musical range, watch some popular movies, read a book they are interested in, go to an concert or sporting event with them that you aren’t super interested in, because it’s important to them and it is a way to show them love. And that love opens a door to sharing the gospel.
He says, “To those under the law I became as one under the law… to those outside the law I became as one outside the law…” Again, never compromising God’s word or his conscience, Paul knew that he needed to live as one of the people he was trying to share the gospel with. So when he was with the Jewish people he lived as a Jew, but when he was with the Greeks and Romans, he adapted himself to them. He served them by changing himself. He didn’t make them bend to him, but instead, he bent to them. He didn’t “throw aside all restraints and live like a pagan to win pagans to Christ” but instead learned and appreciated their culture and didn’t try to force them into His own. We see that in his preaching and his lifestyle (Acts 17-18). That’s servant hearted, Jesus focused, love.
He says, “To the weak I became weak…” He means the weak in conscience, the new believers, the ones who didn’t know as much about God as he did. We’ve talked about this over the last few sermons. Paul lived a life constrained by the consciences of others. He limited his freedoms – what he ate, where he went, and how he spoke. He was delicate with them in order to guide them into deeper knowledge of Christ and a better understanding of the freedom He gives people.
This is a huge one today, and goes back to that video we watched. Instead of forcing everyone into our belief system, and mocking them for being so stupid, we come alongside them, and walk at their pace, until they are stronger.
With some people you can have a drink, make certain jokes, talk about different movies and shows, or obscure or challenging theological concepts – while with others, you simply can’t. You need to give up your freedoms and bridle your tongue for their sake until they grow more mature. Why?
“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
We do it for the sake of the gospel. We do it so that nothing gets between us and the message we’re trying to share. We do it for the joy of seeing people come to Him and being able to worship Jesus with them. We do it to share with them the blessing of what it’s like to be a Christian.
My encouragement to you this week is to look at your life. In what ways have you embraced Radical Individualism, thinking that you are the most important person around, regardless of the needs and desires of others? In what ways have you compromised your ability to share Jesus by trying to share your own personally crafted religion instead? Are you a student of the people around you? Your spouse, your children, your friends, your family, your church, your neighbourhood, your workplace? Are you listening to them so you can talk to them about what interests them, in a way they can understand, in the hopes of building a bridge of friendship so you can share the love of Jesus? Is it possible you are so busy talking to them that you haven’t taken the time to listen to them – and that they can’t hear you because you’re not not speaking in a way they can understand?
 Life Application Study Bible – 1 Corinthians. Pg 128-129